SSA debt may not hurt Vineyard towns

Bill passes state senate to absolve port towns of SSA deficit

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Legislation passed the Massachusetts Senate Thursday that make state responsible for SSA deficit. — Rich Saltzberg

Updated July 2, 2020 6:46 pm

Legislation passed the Massachusetts Senate Thursday that would put the burden of any deficit the Steamship Authority incurs for 2020 squarely on the commonwealth, as opposed to port towns. The legislation, which came in the form of a budgetary amendment, was sponsored by State Senators Julian Cyr, D-Truro, Mark Montigny, D-New Bedford, and Susan Moran, D-Falmouth.

A farebox-dependent ferry service, the SSA has struggled with its cash flow in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic, and has projected a year-end deficit possibly as high as $60 million, though the real number has been hard to peg. At present, a $22 million deficit is anticipated, according to Senator Cyr.

“The Steamship Authority is one of the only government agencies that pays for itself by ticket fare, and in typical seasons remains in pristine fiscal condition. The COVID-19 pandemic puts it in a projected $22 million shortfall that municipal governments cannot be expected to cover while addressing the urgent needs of year-round and seasonal residents,” Cyr said through a release. “The least among us on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard rely on the Steamship Authority and count on its affordability — and we are determined to preserve it in these extraordinary circumstances.” 

Per the SSA enabling act, the port communities of Barnstable, Falmouth, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and New Bedford are responsible for deficits the SSA declares to the state treasurer at the end of the year. 

“With the current projected deficits for the Steamship Authority, the town of Falmouth would have owed over $3 million,” Senator Moran said through a release. “I am profoundly grateful to Senator Cyr and my colleagues in the Senate for joining me to pass this amendment and protect Falmouth from this burden.” 

The next step is for the Senate and House to conference over variations in the budgets they’ve passed. 

“Steamship Authority ferries will keep running, and our port towns must not be held responsible for bailing out this lifeline to the islands during this pandemic,” state Rep. Dylan Fernandes (D-Woods Hole) said through a release. “I’m proud to be working alongside Senator Cyr and my colleagues in the Cape delegation to ensure that both our communities and the Steamship Authority are able to navigate these unprecedented circumstances.” 

“We’re certainly extremely optimistic about this development,” SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll told The Times. “We’re thankful to the senators for their sponsorship. It’s the first step of many for this amendment, and we’ll do whatever it takes to shepherd this along. We will continue to work with our state legislative delegation, our federal delegation, and officials with Governor Baker’s executive office of administration and finance — we’ll continue to work with all three of those groups until we have a solution or solutions to our unique funding challenges this year, but this is certainly a good first step.”

Town officials expressed gratitude at the legislative development. “We’re very appreciative of the efforts of Senator Cyr and Representative Fernandes,” Oak Bluffs town administrator Robert Whritenour said through a release. “Our communities and local residents have been brought to our knees by the COVID-19-related economic shutdown. To be facing the additional economic tsunami of a burgeoning SSA shortfall as a result of the virus is more than our small communities can bear in this difficult financial time.” 

“The town of Barnstable thanks Senator Cyr and the State Senate for their vote to relieve the Steamship Authority port towns from financial responsibility for any deficit in 2020,” Barnstable Town Council President Paul Hebert said through a release. “Barnstable has been active confronting a whole host of costs relative to COVID-19 response, and we’re glad this one is now off the table.” 

“The town administration and residents of Nantucket appreciate the work of Senator Cyr and Representative Fernandes throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” Nantucket Town Manager Libby Gibson said through a release. “A portion of any Steamship Authority deficit placed on the town at the end of 2020 would be a budget buster; thankfully our legislators are working to prevent that.” 

“The town of Tisbury is focused on the pressing financial challenges for our FY21 budget, and paying a portion of any Steamship Authority deficit is not something we can afford,” Tisbury town administrator Jay Grande said through a release. “We’re grateful to Senator Cyr and Rep. Fernandes for their work to ensure the commonwealth covers any SSA deficit.”